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Ice sledge hockey star Christine Gauthier ready to break more barriers

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One of Canada’s most underrated female athletes, Christine Gauthier is ready to bring her world-class skills to another level. In addition to her years of service as a member of the Canadian national women’s ice sledge hockey team, the resident of Dorval, Quebec is also an exceptional competitor in Paracanoe, having competed in the world championships in that respective sport. In addition, she was also a national champion in Para Nordic sit ski, back in 2011.

Also competing in ice sledge hockey at the club level in Montreal, Gauthier’s first exposure to the sport came in the aftermath of a landmark sporting event, as she explains, “Saw an ad after the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. A group was advertising the sport and there was also a video that was made. I had contacted someone in Montreal about playing.”

One common trait among all the regions of Canada where women’s ice sledge hockey is contested is defined by a wide range of ages. It is not uncommon to have teams where one player may be old enough to be the mother of a younger teammate. This current situation in the game is very similar to the rebirth of women’s stand-up hockey in the 1970s and 1980s, when teenagers would play alongside senior citizens. 

With awareness of the sport comes an increase in players. Upon this occurrence, the sport shall naturally correct itself, establishing different age groups. Although the current age issue will one day be considered an anomaly, Gauthier acknowledged that it was significant when she first started to play. She also recognizes that change looms on the horizon, which should yield positive results,

“The age difference was huge. In Quebec, I noticed that it is starting to change. There are plans for a junior team now, and we are trying to put together a Quebec women’s provincial team. In Laval, Montreal and the South shore, the numbers are growing, especially with younger players.”

Joined by her husband Gilles St. Pierre at the 2015 training camp for the national women’s ice sledge hockey team, Gauthier may be more heroic and influential off the ice. A member of Canada’s Armed Forces, Gauthier holds the rank of corporal. As a side note, she has also competed in the handcycle portion of the Army Run.

Although Gauthier, who is 45 years young, is one of the more mature competitors at the national women’s level, she is proud to be a positive influence for younger players from Quebec. Having also scouted younger players, her role of mentor is one of great importance to her,

“Some younger players have contacted me before and I always hope they know that I am there”

Like Canadian goaltender Shawnie Snell, Gauthier also employs the aid of a service dog. Identified by the sobriquet of Batak, Gauthier acknowledges his ability to raise the spirits of others, bringing contentment wherever he goes,

“We dress him up and he has his own jersey. He is a good spirit for the team and a calming influence. I do not mind if people pet him, he makes everyone happy.”

Despite Gauthier not being named to the national ice sledge hockey team for the 2015-16 season, her determination and effort shall be of great benefit elsewhere. For the next few months, her raison d’etre shall be the purpose of a podium finish at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Summer Games. As Paracanoe shall be contested for the first time, Gauthier is among a historic group of Canadian athletes that have qualified for the event,

“I am also on the national team for kayaking. There was a world championship in Milan, Italy that I participated in. I have also qualified for the next Paralympic event in Rio.”

Having won five world championships in paracanoe (her most recent came in 2013 in Duisburg, Germany), her sixth place finish in the Women’s KL2 200-meters at the 2015 worlds in Milan, Italy secured her a spot in Rio. At the 2014 ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships, she earned a silver medal in the K1 200 TA event. The TA classification is based on the athlete’s ability to use their trunk and their arms.

Over the last few years, balancing both sports presented its challenges. Although Gauthier did not participate with the Canadian national team in Buffalo, the 2015 site of its annual exhibition series with their American rivals, her heart was certainly with the team,

“Sometimes it can be a problem. Last year, I could only commit to the national team until December. I had been training into this year to qualify for the Paralympics. Very soon, I will be going to Florida for spring camp.

Luckily, the plane can take us quickly anywhere now. If the national team would have needed me for Buffalo, I would have committed. It is all about the team first.”

Although Gauthier was not on-hand for Buffalo 2015, she was part of two remarkable and relevant events in the nascent history of women’s ice sledge hockey. In 2013, Philadelphia served as the backdrop for a world championship event. Recognized today as an “unofficial” world championship, as it was not endorsed by the IPC, Gauthier was part of the Canadian national team.

The result for all players involved in Philadelphia was a unified victory. With the IPC holding a women’s world championship in 2014, it served as the bookend for an amazing movement in the sport.

As a side note, it paralleled a unique chapter in women’s stand-up hockey. In 1987, Fran Rider organized an “unofficial” Women’s World Championship in stand-up hockey. Her efforts would bring about unprecedented change to the sport as the IIHF held its first Women’s Worlds in 1990. 

Once again, Gauthier was part of the Canadian roster for the IPC Women’s Worlds in 2014. Held in Brampton, Ontario, (coincidentally, it is where Rider grew up); Gauthier was part of a silver medal effort for Canada. Akin to Philadelphia, the color of the medal could not match the bigger victory.

The event in Brampton served as the backdrop for the announcement that women’s ice sledge hockey shall be a demonstration sport at the 2018 Pyeongchang Paralympic Games. To have contributed to the game’s growth and subsequent history served as a great point of pride for Gauthier,  

“It is fun to be part of both events. I do not think that I will be playing at the Paralympics (for hockey), but I have always enjoyed breaking barriers. I was one of the first seven women to open combat arms training for women in the army.

Trying new things feels normal. I will be doing kayaking for the first time at the Paralympics. When you can open up a new sport, it presents opportunity. It is always exciting to be part of something new.”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

Image obtained from: christinegauthier.ca

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